EDMONTON — Ken Holland has so many players in Europe, he’s kind of lost count.
“We’re pushing 20,” Holland said when asked exactly how many are overseas.
He’s not wrong: Edmonton has exactly 20 players loaned out to teams in Europe, if you count Jesse Puljujarvi in Finland. They stretch from Tyler Benson on Zurich’s feeder team, the GCK Lions, to Dmitri Samorukov, who joined the Red Army team he grew up cheering for in Moscow, to a bunch of guys in Sweden.
Which players will come back? When will they start boarding planes? Will they all route through Calgary to take advantage of the testing program at YYC (you bet they will)?
This and more in our return-to-play notebook, which we’ll admit may have as many questions as answers.
Speaking of Puljujarvi, the Oilers right winger has cooled considerably since signing his two-year deal on Oct. 7, with just one goal and four points in his past six Liiga games for Karpat. He has lost his first-line gig to European journeyman Juhamatti Aaltonen, a 35-year-old who has spent time in Russia, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland.
Here’s the problem for Puljujarvi when it comes to playing at home in Oulu: if he dominates as he did last season, it is expected. The Liiga is not as strong as the American Hockey League, remember, with big ice that leaves more room for the six-foot-three Puljujarvi to operate.
But when his production is average — he ranked 44th in Liiga scoring as of Tuesday — you look at the names of the 43 players who have more points and question Puljujarvi’s production. Oilers fans will hope he has simply run his course with Karpat, and that Puljujarvi will find another level when he returns to training camp in Edmonton — whenever that begins.
Of the other 19 players he has overseas, Holland has different plans for different players as we near the time for them to travel back to Canada and deal with the quarantine.
(Again, likely all will take advantage of the YYC program that can eliminate the 14-day quarantine if one tests negative upon landing in Calgary. Surely Connor McDavid, who is in Arizona training with Auston Mathews, among others, will route through YYC on his way to Edmonton.)
“Some we’ve agreed they’ll stay in those cities until their season is over — as an example, Samorukov,” Holland said on Tuesday. “I’ve agreed that if he’s in a good situation — and all the reports I’m getting are that he is top-four d-man, he’s playing regular — he will stay in CSKA until their regular season and playoffs are over. He’ll join us once their season is complete.”
Holland says that Broberg, at age 19, is likely in the same boat. He’ll finish the year with Skelleftea, where he ranks third on the team with 18:59 of ice time per game. That’s up a full five minutes per night from last season.
And the rest of the players?
“I’m waiting for the ‘return-to-play’ package,” Holland said. “What are the training camp limits? Are there limits? How long is camp? Some of those players (Gataen Haas, Theodore Lennstrom, Evan Bouchard, Joakim Nygard) we might want them back here in an NHL training camp. Others we might say, camp is so short, there are so few preseason games, they have no chance to make the team … We can leave them (in Europe).
“I’m waiting for the league and the union to come out with the parameters. Then we’ll make decisions on the fly.”
If you’re wondering why Holland is musing about leaving Broberg in the SHL for a second season, look no further than the free agent signing of Lennstrom, who inked a one-year deal at $925,000. He may be a player in Edmonton, or maybe not. But if he can buy some development time for Broberg and Bouchard it’s a worthwhile signing.
When the NHL does return, with budgets tighter than ever before, some scouts predict that their departments may be asked to spend less. That could mean less in-person viewings, and watching more games on TVs and computers.
“In the next five years I believe travel is going to be more restricted for sure. They’ll go to video more and more,” an Eastern-based NHL scout said.
A decade or more ago, the Buffalo Sabres tried this as a cost cutting measure. It was a disaster, but back then the televised product wasn’t anywhere close to what it is today. Combine that with computer programs where scouts can watch a single player’s shifts, the analytical breakdowns done on every game, and the fact you can watch three games per day at any hour, and teams may be ready to at least do their preliminary scouting on a TV monitor before travelling to view a player prior to making a trade or signing.
What we’ve learned is, a combination is usually the smartest way to go.
“Buffalo went there 15 years ago and they haven’t had a good team since. Arizona went to analytics big time. What have they done? Nothing,” a scout based in Western Canada said. “The ones that he gone overboard have not turned out. But Tampa has been heavy on analytics since Brian Lawton was there. It’s worked out pretty good.”
What we’ve learned about analytics is that they are a piece of the pie. Not the entire pie. The best organizations have a healthy level of trust between the spreadsheet people and the eye test folks.
“Lots of communication between hockey and numbers guys,” the first scout said. “There has to be open discussion and trust between the two sides. What we want is the best team possible. Go and see what an analytics guy sees, and dispute it by going to a game and looking at it. Or, confirm it.”
A third scout said that technology allows him to get “about 70 per cent there” by watching video. To properly assess a player, the final 30 per cent must include a live viewing.
No miracle to report on the Oscar Klefbom front, as he tries to decide how best to handle what is believed to be an arthritic shoulder.
“Nothing has changed,” Holland said. “He’s hoping to be healthy for September. Next year’s training camp. I’m 99.9 percent sure Klef is not going to play in the 20-21 season.”
Meanwhile, in perhaps his final act as an Oilers employee, American Hockey League President Scott Howson touted former Yale defenceman Phil Kemp, whose seventh-round selection predated Holland in Edmonton. Howson knew Kemp from his time running the Oilers’ development system, and on his word Holland gave Kemp a three-year entry level deal before sending him over to Vasby, the second-tier Swedish team where second-rounder Rafael Lavoie also plays.
“My plan was, I was going to watch Phil Kemp play another year (at Yale) this year, and then we’d make a decision on (signing) him. Then Yale decided they weren’t going to play this year,” Holland said. “So I reached out to Scott Howson, and I talked to (Oilers assistant GM) Keith Gretzky. But mostly on the recommendation of Scott Howson, we decided to sign him.”
Can Kemp become the next John Marino, who would not sign with the Oilers after they drafted him in Round 6? Marino played Top 4 minutes with Pittsburgh last season after stepping out of Ivy League Harvard, and is definitely one that got away from the Oilers.
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